Thursday, May 24, 2007

Present perfect

Sometimes it's very nice to get exactly what you want - a sentiment with which I'm sure the posh crowd at the opening of the Huntington's Present Laughter would agree. Everyone knew the Noël Coward piece was perfect for Artistic Director Nicholas Martin, and Victor Garber (at left) was perfectly cast as its Coward-like star, Garry Essendine; what's more, the show was packed with Huntington favorites (Broadway star Brooks Ashmanskas, along with local heroes Nancy E. Carroll and Richard Snee), and celebrated designer Alexander Dodge was on hand to supply a suitably luxe suite of Art Deco digs. After the misfires of Well and Persephone, the hunger for a hit from the Huntington was palpable - but would the show match its expectations?

Well, yes, and then some. Present Laughter isn't just a swank, sophisticated hit but a home run, a gleaming theatrical Rolls that rolls right over the competition and all but revels in its old-fashioned appointments. This isn't a show for the avant-garde, nor one for the politically correct - unlike the out-and-proud New York version a few years ago, the Huntington pushes Coward back into the closet (even the program refers to his sexuality only obliquely). But somehow I didn't care - the Huntington is certainly gay-friendly, and I understand the longing straight people have to hang onto the culture they thought was theirs but really wasn't - they don't want to give up Cary Grant or Noël Coward; they want to believe heterosexuals can be suavely glamorous and carefree, too. Fat chance, of course; still, ignoring the show's gay "subtext" makes it more "universal," I suppose (even the bigots can feel included!), and perhaps Coward had the last word on this score when he refused to out himself by saying, "You see there are still two little old ladies in Tunbridge Wells who don't know."

Lisa Banes and Victor Garber relax on Alexander Dodge's set.

Certainly the virtues celebrated by Laughter - loyalty, self-possession, and sexual maturity - are (or should be) universal, at least among adults; this is what makes Coward still valuable, and what (along with his wit) will ensure his work endures. These themes are also honored at the Huntington, even if the "girls" are bona-fide girls this time around (the play deals with Garry Essendine's problem with what the Clintons might have called "bimbo eruptions"). Occasionally director Martin gooses things along a bit broadly (a perilously low-cut gown all-but-cheekily defies its period, for instance) but generally he crafts nearly voluptuous stretches of knowing banter that go down with the sweet sting of vintage champagne - and Dodge's smashing set, all 30s-era murals and curving banisters, conjures almost more atmosphere than required. But it's Broadway vet Victor Garber who must shine in this glittering setting, and he more than sparkles as the vain, vulnerable, impossible Essendine, who's still robustly seductive (even in a zebra-print dressing gown), but whose "age" varies from 42 to over a decade higher, and who's constantly catching his own eye in the mirror to count his gray hairs and wrinkles.

Much of the depth of Present Laughter, indeed, comes from the startling frankness of this self-portrait (which is rather less flattering than the one on Garry's wall). Essendine may be a talented monster (who's occasionally nasty toward women - Louise Kennedy, that's your cue!), but he has a sharp sense of his own absurdity, so we understand why those around him love him - and also why, and how, he loves them back. The mutual admiration society probably extends to this cast of actors, too, many of whom, like the characters they play, have worked together before, and here perform as a seamless unit. Indeed, the cast is so strong that this star vehicle often feels like an ensemble piece. Brooks Ashmanskas, for instance (above left), as a blithering playwright harassing Gary, suffuses his performance with a memorable infantility, and is so impeccable in his physical comedy that he steals the show almost every time he crosses the stage. Meanwhile Lisa Banes, as not-quite-ex-wife Liz, and Sarah Hudnut, as Gary's bright-eyed-but-seen-it-all secretary, are both superbly long-suffering in complementary keys. And don't get me started on local star Nancy Carroll, whose washed-out maidservant earned a roar of laughter on her very first entrance. My only quibble was with Pamela J. Gray as the predatory Joanna (who seeks with her feminine wiles to up-end Garry's comfortable existence); Gray's presence seemed to me at first not nearly ferocious enough (despite that plunging gown), but I have to admit she eventually won me over as she slowly stirred her well-chilled calculations.

Indeed, as the curtain fell (after a lovely song from the cast), I was reminded that Present Laughter has always seemed to me rather underrated in the Coward canon. Although it relies on this playwright's standard tropes (the dressing gowns, the dressings-down), it hints at an autumnal depth that the standard Coward hits lack - loss, loneliness, and the relentless passage of time register more poignantly here than elsewhere in his ouevre, and at the finale he (via Garry) even seems to grow up a little. And while Coward does closet his sexuality, Present Laughter still registers as far less guarded than, say, the more sexually-open Design for Living. Would an aggressively gay interpretation overshadow these virtues? Perhaps; and so I'm grateful to the Huntington for hewing to its author's intentions and persona - and of course more than happy with a production that could hold its own on Broadway.

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